The Therapist In Your Pocket

How can you find a mental health app that's right for you?

Five Figures to Consider

10,000 mental health-related smartphone apps available
60% of adults with mental illness didn’t receive treatment in the previous year
54% of U.S. counties have no psychiatrist
95% of teens and 80% of U.S. adults own a smartphone
187 mental health apps reviewed for credibility, usability and transparency on PsyberGuide.com

Cyberspace is swarming with mental health apps. More than 10,000 of them, according to a 2017 report in JAMA Psychiatry. While evidence indicates that mental health apps can relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression, there is also evidence that some apps are downright dangerous. One app for bipolar disorder advised users experiencing a manic episode to drink alcohol. Not exactly what a doctor would have ordered.

The need for accessible and effective mental health treatment is overwhelming. According to the National Association of Mental Illness, 44 million U.S. adults experience mental illness in a given year. Only 40% of them receive treatment. Mood disorders are the third most common cause of hospitalizations among youth and adults, and suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 34. (Read our article, Mental Health in Schools.) Tragically, with more guns than people in the U.S., mental health treatment is often less accessible than a shotgun. More than half of all suicide deaths are from guns. Meanwhile, 54% of U.S. counties have no psychiatrists, and one-third have no licensed psychologists.

What is in abundance? Smartphones. At least 80% of U.S. adults and 95% of teens own one. Which makes smartphones more available than mental health professionals. Additionally, in an environment where most mental health treatment is found out-of-network with generally high out-of-pockets costs, smartphone apps are an inexpensive alternative or supplement to one-on-one treatment. The good news is that high quality apps have been shown to be effective. A review of 31 randomized, controlled trials of mental health apps indicated that among patients suffering from mild-to-moderate depression, anxiety and schizophrenia, symptoms were reduced.

Two new online tools can help you identify a mental health app that’s right for you. The first, PsyberGuide, is funded by the nonprofit ­brain-research organization One Mind, and is run by a team at the University of California at Irvine and Northwestern University. Working in partnership with mental health organizations including the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and the National Alliance on Mental Illness, PsyberGuide provides free, unbiased rankings and reviews of mental-health apps.

Users can search PsyberGuide’s App Guide based on mental health conditions (mood disorders, eating disorders, PTSD, etc.) or on treatment types (cognitive training, gratitude, dialectical behavior therapy, etc.) Each app is scored for credibility (scientific research behind the app), user experience (is it engaging and easy-to-use?) and transparency (clarity about how your data is stored and used). Many of the 187 ranked apps include a review written by an independent expert.

Another App Evaluation Tool is offered by the American Psychiatric Association and is best used by a professional and patient together. The tool walks users through an evaluation process that covers safety, privacy, scientific evidence, ease of use and the ability of the patient and professional to share information with one another.

In the future, such digital information sharing may include biometric stress indicators such as respiration and perspiration collected through a wearable device similar to an Apple watch. Such an app is in development today by researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Franciscan Children’s in Boston. If the technology works, psychiatrists would be alerted when a patient is in distress and could immediately reach out to offer assistance from wherever they are.

Sources

American Friends of Tel Aviv University, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, Current Psychiatry, Everytown for Gun Safety, Franciscan Children’s Hospital, JAMA, Massachusetts General Hospital and National Association of Mental Illness, National Institutes of Health, PsyberGuide, University of Michigan Behavioral Health Workforce Research Center